It’s a Tuesday at Finlandia, one of the two cooperative living houses at Brown University, and two of its 25 members, Maggie Meshnick and Sammie Chomsky, are in charge of dinner tonight.
“What should we make?” one asks.
They survey their options in the kitchen, settling on sautéed greens, seasoned sweet potatoes, and rice for tonight’s meal. The kitchen walls are painted in alternating yellow and turquoise. The stove dominates the small room—a heavy black mammoth, huge and rectangular. It’s surprising to learn that it still functions (mostly). Meshnick, after preheating the oven, props a painted stool against the handle, “to hold it closed,” she explains casually.
Finlandia, affectionately called Findy, has been inextricably linked to the people it has sheltered for 21 years now, creating a sense that the house would collapse were it not held together by good intentions, communal spirit, and more than its fair share of whimsy.
Cooperative houses, or co-ops, are a global phenomenon in which the members are responsible for preparing food, managing finances, and making all decisions consensually for the common benefit of all other members. The first co-ops at Brown sprung up in the 1960s as an experiment in communal living. Today, students and community members can join one of the two co-ops, Finlandia or Watermyn. Members can live in house or just eat there, paying a set monthly fee and taking turns cooking nightly vegetarian dinners, cleaning, and attending co-op organization meetings.Finlandia opened its doors in 1995. The co-op website explains, “it is radical in its denial of the American pillars of Capitalism and Individualism, but the possessor of its own rich traditions.” There is no established hierarchy of leadership. The only rule is that everyone must agree on the rules. Consensus reigns.Historically, co-ops are politically and socially conscious, an opposition to the defined capitalist norms of cohabitation. Findy is in many ways paradoxical: simultaneously new and old, communal and necessarily reliant on the cooperation of each individual, and part of Brown yet independent from the University. Chomsky highlighted a contradiction in living in a co-op as university students: they’re “not directly challenging the norm because we’re in college,” she said. In college, students are expected to live together in large groups or dorms. It’s the social norm, so living in a co-op doesn’t deviate that far from what’s expected.
The co-op does, however, have dimensions and responsibilities that are quite different from most university living arrangements. Unlike other residence options, the co-op has neither a landlord nor a maintenance service checking in on the house, so members can write on the walls, paint, or alter the house however they please. “Everyone has equal stake in the place,” said Anne Fosburg, a tenant at Findy. Because of this, everyone has to put in the effort to make it a nurturing community that is financially accessible and safe. If something breaks in the home, it is the responsibility of the members to call a repairman or address the problem themselves. Fosburg said that the members must distinguish between “what’s dire and what’s cosmetic.” There are places where the walls are crumbling, exposing the wooden scaffolding. Temporary solutions are favored over lasting projects. This leaves the house looking not that different stylistically than it did when the first co-opers moved in in 1995.
The peeling, patched, and colorful walls of Findy are covered in layers of writing—quotes, musings, doodles. Writing on the walls is one of Findy’s most beloved traditions. Some grab you with their intensity, others their sincerity, their subtle truth, or their absurdity (“In order to steal something you first have to learn how to dance”). The majority convey affection for their home and for the community of wall-scribblers and food-cookers.“I love you, Findy.”
“Findy is like dog years”— reads another. This statement rings true; something about Findy seems to be operating outside the traditional bounds of time. This old building has housed generations of college students—generations of muddy snow boots, crowded parties, and forgotten crumbs.
Meshnick and Chomsky find the kitchen charmingly dirty. Meshnick expressed an appreciation for the system, dirt and all. “Everyone’s here because they want to be here,” she said. Besides, she added, “a little dirt is good for your immune system.”
As the “Food Fascist,” Meshnick is responsible for ordering food for the week. The kitchen is usually stocked with the staples—yogurt, cereal, eggs, greens, beans—and seasonal items, usually based on the price. They order from Farm Fresh and Urban Greens, supplemented by some supermarket purchases, Meshnick said. People are attracted to the co-ops as an option that provides cheap, fresh, vegetarian food outside the university dining halls.The economic benefit of living in co-ops is indisputable. The Cooperative Board of New England loaned the Brown Association for Cooperative Housing (BACH) the money for the houses in the early 80s, and the mortgage is still through them, Fosburg said. This allows for year to year price adjustments, based on the number of residents and their financial status. Residents of Findy pay on a sliding scale based on income, Fosburg said, with $500 as standard rent. The Food Fascist is responsible for making sure people are square on their co-op payments. If someone can’t pay their full share any given month, they can work out a solution with the rest of the house.Right now, 9 out of the 13 spots are filled in Findy. A couple of people dropped out last minute, said Fosburg, who shares a room with a fellow Brown student.
Currently, there are 25 food co-op members, said Meshnick. It costs $85 per month to receive one meal a day (dinner), and $145 per month for unlimited access to the kitchen and food supplies. Dinner is cooked for the entire co-op every night and each member must sign up to either cook or clean for dinner once a week. Typically two people prepare dinner, and two people clean up the communal dishes afterwards.A free home-cooked meal is a rarity anywhere, let alone on a college campus. Findy, however, welcomes community members to their nightly dinners, asking nothing in return. Co-op members often bring their friends for dinner.
Food is a major component of the co-op, not just as an economical option, said Fosburg. “When you have 12 or 15 or 20 people around a dinner table eating a dinner you made for them, there’s something really, really special about that,” said Fosburg. “There’s a common orientation toward what we put in our bodies and so it’s a really fundamental commonality that I think is really powerful.”
While the co-op strives to be accessible for all people, there are still some social barriers. Naomi Chasek-Macfoy, a food co-oper and Brown student, said that the anti-capitalist model can be exclusionary for people of color, noting that Findy is composed primarily of white students. It’s a luxury to be anti-capitalist, she said. People of color need to work so much harder to convince employers that they’re professional, an appearance that does not line up with the co-op image, she said.Today, “Findy doesn’t project the same level of intentionality,” said Chasek-Macfoy. Visual reminders of the counterculture remain, but they have been disconnected from the politics. This, she said, represents a larger trend: “people just aren’t making communes in the same way.”While the activism of the sixties may have subsided, the skills and sentiments of communal living still hold current practical and social value. Fosburg said there is a lot to be learned from living in a space that is intentionally anti-racist and anti-sexist—a space where people are both “comfortable calling each other out and receptive to being called out.” She explained the value of conversations where people feel safe enough to say “this kind of language you’re using is making me uncomfortable.” Recently, she noted, they’ve been discussing how best to deal with mental health issues in a community that relies on everyone pulling their own weight. The upshot she says? Communication. Fosburg said being part of the co-op has given her the skills to “build a community in the same kind of way after Brown.”
Everyone should co-op, said Fosburg. “It’s such a worthwhile experience. I think you learn to communicate with people in a way that’s different than you do in normal life and it’s a way of relying on other people that’s just super beautiful.”
It’s 7:00 PM. People begin to trickle into the kitchen. In no time, the small room is full of warm greetings, laughter, and the smell of cooking food. One member, returned from a semester abroad, is visibly thrilled to be back in the Findy kitchen.
“So what’s falling apart in the co-op right now,” he says with amused fondness.
By 7:30 PM, the common room is full. Notebooks and laptops that were left out unattended are placed to the side, clearing the communal table. Everyone grabs a dish (defined loosely here as anything that will hold food). Most are mismatched, chipped ceramic of varying shapes and sizes. The food is delicious and healthy. Meshnick and Chomsky are pleased at the outcome, and relieved to discover that they’ve correctly estimated the necessary amount of food, one of the most challenging parts of the job.A quote painted in bubble letters in the front hall reads, “The most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” Over dinner, Findy takes a daring step, providing good food, thoughtful conversation, and a consistent, financial haven outside of traditional university housing.
*Originally Reported in Spring 2016